More often now when we shop we are presented with options in clothing, bedding and homewares that come in organic cotton and non-organic cotton. In my experience the organic cotton options typically come with a higher price tag and usually in less vibrant and fewer colour options. So what is organic cotton and why might some of us be inclined to pay a higher price for it?
Organically grown cotton
Cotton that is not organic is referred to as 'conventional' cotton. It is typically grown using a host of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides and fertilisers that are used in crop management and to maximise yields. It also means that cotton is able to be grown in areas where it might not otherwise survive. Conversely, organic cotton is cotton that is grown without the use of these synthetic chemicals or genetically modified seed. It is worth noting here, that some organic farmers may still use certain 'natural' controls and inputs for crop management, which in some cases are thought to be equally as harmful to the surrounding environment. Advocates are suggesting that this is an area within organic farming certification that requires consideration.
Conventional vs. organic fabric
If you have an organically grown cotton crop, you can produce an organic fibre which is used as a raw input for producing cotton fabric. There are many processes required to transform a plant into cotton fibre and then fabric. These processes can also be done either organically or conventionally. Conventional fabric production uses even more chemicals. These include detergents, brighteners, bleaches and softeners. There are up to 8,000 synthetic chemicals that are known to be used in conventional fashion manufacturing, some of which contain known carcinogens and hormone disruptors. Unlike our food, fabric labels aren't required to come with a list of ingredients and so our level of exposure to these hazardous substances is largely undisclosed. This source even claims that at least 10% of the weight of a conventionally woven cotton fabric is made up of synthetic chemicals!
What is important to note here is that it is possible to buy garments that are labelled as being made from 100% organic cotton crop, but if the fabric has been conventionally woven you might still be exposed to many of the same chemicals that you would find in non-organic cotton garments.
Organic cotton fabric standards
The Global Organic Textiles Standard or GOTS is the third party certification used to identify organic fabrics. GOTS certification covers the entire production process from the use of organically farmed fibres to fabric processing and manufacturing. It is a rigorous process which even includes criteria relating to fair labour practices. All of the GOTS criteria must be met in order to receive the certification. GOTS certification is an internationally recognised organic textile certification and represents a commitment to providing sustainable, ethical and high-quality products. So when buying an item that is GOTS certified, you know that both the fibre and fabric have been produced using organic methods.
Why are all of these chemicals applied to our clothes?
Clothing that is woven using conventional practices may contain a whole host of chemicals such as formaldehyde, synthetic dyes (such as azo dyes), perfluorocarbon (PFC), dioxins and heavy metals. The thing to remember is that some of these chemicals are added to fabrics to serve an ongoing purpose, such as being non-slip, anti-microbial, stain resistant or fire resistant. So they don't necessarily disappear when washed the first time. Some also break down to form different chemical compounds and it is these by-products that can be harmful. For example, when azo dyes breakdown they form aromatic amine compounds which can be absorbed by the skin and sweat glands. A study undertaken by Australia's ACCC showed that a single wash of an item may not decrease the concentration of the aromatic amine compounds. In some cases, the concentrations after a single wash were slightly higher than the pre-wash results. This is because as the azo dyes continued to break down during wearing and washing, more of the aromatic amine compounds are produced.
The table below outlines just a handful of the synthetic chemicals used in fashion manufacturing and their potential health risks.
This year during fashion revolution week, which shines a spotlight on the sustainability of the fashion industry, we were encouraged to consider and ask our favourite brands 'what's in my clothes?'. This served as a reminder of the myriad of inputs that go into clothing and textile manufacturing and the impact that these can have on people and the planet. It is not only we as consumers that are affected by these chemicals, the level of exposure that is experienced by farmers, fabric manufacturers and garment workers and even greater.
Environmental benefits of organic cotton
Not only are certified organic cotton fabrics better for people but they are much kinder and a more sustainable option for the environment too. Large scale conventional (chemical) cotton farming has shown us that there can be some really serious implications for the surrounding environment. Soil health is continually deteriorated by this method of farming because when using chemicals to take out the 'bad guys' you're also killing the good guys within the soil ecosystem too. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of ever more chemical inputs required being required to supplement soil deficiencies. Runoff of chemicals from these fields can also be toxic for nearby watercourses and devastate aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems that depend on them.
The textile processing and manufacturing process can be even more devastating for the environment. According to an article from Remake Our World "in China, 70% of rivers and lakes are contaminated by 2.5 billion gallons or wastewater from the textile and dye industry" and a single mill can use 200 tonnes of fresh waster per tonne of dye fabric produced. That is a ratio of 1:200 and is completely unsustainable given the world’s insatiable demand for textiles and clothing.
According to aboutorganiccotton.org, an organic crop uses 88% less water and 62% less energy than a traditional cotton crop. Much of this reduction in water and energy use can be attributed to the resource intensity of the manufacturing process to make synthetic pesticides and fertilisers that are used on a conventional cotton crop. Water sources and soil systems are also better protected when cotton is grown organically because the runoff from these fields is less toxic than chemically grown cotton.
Where does Australia stand on this?
Interestingly, despite Australia being a large producer of cotton crops, there is currently no cotton grown organically in this country. At present the largest producers of organic cotton are India, China, Turkey, Tanzania and the United States. According to Cotton Australia, based on trials undertaken by a small number of growers it was proven to be uneconomical to grow organic cotton here, and therefore long-term production was never commenced. Cotton Australia also cited a study undertaken by the University of California in 2006 which examined three different cotton farming methods to determine that organic cotton farming produced lower yields than conventional cotton farming. However, Textile Exchange point out that while a favourite argument in support of chemical agriculture is that the yields are higher. "Chemically intensive agriculture, especially in irrigated systems, push the ecosystem year-on-year for higher yields. This requires the use of an ever increasing amount of chemical inputs, including growth regulators", which is completely unsustainable.
It was so eye-opening for me to do the research on this article and I have learnt so much. It helps to understand why we've always been told to wash new clothes before we wear them and I'm certainly going to make sure I continue to do so. I hope you've learnt something too. Please leave me any comments or questions that you might have and make sure you sign up to our mailing list to find out about new articles on the blog as well as the latest updates from Curious Kind.